She opened the door and smiled, stepping back to let him in. He was a good-looking guy despite his untrimmed hair, his unshaven jaw, and the three-inch scar that ran down one cheek, a remnant from a fight with his brother as teenagers, when they’d shattered a sliding glass door. Dressed in a plain black T-shirt tucked into well-worn jeans, his gray eyes sparkling with life and laughter, he was a welcome ray of light in the dark mire that had become her life.
Mike’s smile faded, his brows lowering as he studied her. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
The man was far too perceptive. “I’m fine. It’s been a long day.” The understatement of the year. She’d felt every single one of the day’s 86,400 seconds tick by. “What did you bring tonight?” she asked, eyeing the bottle of wine in his hand.
He held it up with a flourish. “Chateau la Peyre Saint-Estephe Bordeaux.” The French rolled off his tongue as if he’d been born to it.
“Will it go with banana cream pie?”
Gray eyes crinkled with laughter. “Everything goes with banana cream pie.”
They fell into their nightly routine, Mike uncorking the bottle and pouring it into the two wineglasses that Quinn had waiting while she served up whatever dessert she’d made that day. Dessert was the one thing she could still get Zack to eat.
But her own appetite had fled beneath the sick feeling of helplessness as she’d watched that boy being captured. While Mike seated himself on her sofa, wineglass in one hand and a dessert plate in the other, she followed with her own glass and took a seat on the reading chair across from him.
“No pie?” he asked.
“I’m not hungry.”
Fortunately, there was no attraction between them. If there had been, she’d have stopped these nightly visits as soon as they began. After all, she was leaving town the moment Zack was well. Hopefully, in four days. There was no sense getting involved with a guy she’d never see again.
She’d done that all too recently with one far-too-handsome Italian vampire.
“How’s the book coming?” she asked, needing to steer her thoughts away from Vamp City and vampires, and the tragedy she’d just witnessed.
He gave her a pained smile. “Three steps forward, five steps back.”
“No one ever said writing was easy. I spent half the day wandering in front of the window trying to understand why my protagonist left the scene of the crime three chapters back, only to realize he wouldn’t have.”
As Mike launched into the details of his latest thriller novel, Quinn took a sip of wine, sinking back into her chair, enjoying the calm, mellow tones of Mike’s voice. And wishing, despite herself, that she were with another—one arrogant, controlling, and manipulative vampire within whom she’d found shades of both the hero and the villain. A male she’d trusted with her life. And a vampire whose word she’d never been able to trust at all.
Mike paused to take another bite of pie as he eyed her with what she’d come to think of as his writerly scrutiny, as if she were one of his characters, and he was trying to figure her out. He’d never succeed, of course. Humans didn’t believe in sorceresses, or vampires, or immortal otherworlds. And she wasn’t about to clue this one in.
“How are you really, Quinn?” His tone was compassionate, as if he could see her falling apart at the seams. Every night he asked the same question, in the same way, then never pressed when she gave him her stock, trite answer, for which she was grateful. It wasn’t like she could ever tell him the truth.
“I’m fine. Tired and worried about Zack, but things will be better once we get home.”
She’d told him that Zack’s best friend was one of the many missing persons in D.C. and that Zack was suffering from depression as a result. That they were moving back to Pennsylvania to get him away from the memories. She wasn’t sure Mike believed her. If only she could tell him the truth. If only she had someone to confide in other than Zack, who was still too traumatized by all that had happened.
Mike rose, smiling at her with understanding. He really was a nice man. Watching her with that studious look, he opened his mouth, then closed it slowly as if he’d decided against saying whatever was on his mind.
“Get some sleep, Quinn. Everything looks brighter in daylight.”
Quinn snorted and smiled. “Profound.”
Mike grinned at her. “That’s the smile I like to see.”
She said good-bye and let him out, locking up behind him, then went to check on Zack, to see if she could coax him into eating a little pie.
As she eased open Zack’s door, the light from a streetlamp lit his face, a face that had aged during his brief captivity in Vamp City, making him look older than his twenty-two years. His was still an engaging face, if harder than before, framed by overlong curly red hair. If her own hair had looked like his, instead of being blond and straight, they’d have looked rather startlingly similar, despite being only half siblings. They’d both inherited their dad’s lanky height, green eyes, wide mouth, and straight nose.
“Zack?” she asked, flipping on the light. “How about a slice of banana cream pie?”
His eyes opened slowly. The circles beneath were dark as bruises, the whites an unnatural shimmery gray.
She swallowed, aching at the sight of him.
“No thanks,” he murmured, then rolled away from her.
Quinn turned off the light and closed the door behind her, then sank back against the wall. He’d be fine after the equinox, after the magic was renewed. She had to believe that. But the equinox was still four days away.
And deep inside, she was terrified that Zack might not live that long.
The sun was low in the sky the next afternoon as Quinn strode down Twenty-first Street, her gun wedged snugly at the small of her back beneath the leather jacket that was a little too warm for the September day, two wooden stakes in her inside breast pocket, and a switchblade in the front pocket of her jeans. A breeze played with her hair as she kept a sharp eye out for anyone . . . or any thing . . . suspicious.
She’d spent a couple of hours at the firing range, as she did every day, now. A week wasn’t a long time to become proficient, but she could handle a gun, and her aim wasn’t half-bad. A month ago, her self-defense capability had extended no further than the Tae Kwon Do moves she’d learned as a kid. She was still no warrior, but she was armed, now. And wary. And prepared to do whatever it took to keep her brother and herself alive.
As she neared the street where she lived, she passed a couple of college kids walking down the sidewalk, their backpacks slung over one shoulder, lattes in one hand and cell phones in the other. Just a month ago, Zack had been one of them, making plans with Lily to move to California next summer. when they both graduated. Last week, before she’d taken a temporary leave of absence from her job as a lab tech at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Quinn had run some surreptitious blood tests on her brother, hoping to find something physically wrong that human medicine might be able to cure. Some reason for his failing health and his shimmery gray eyes. Something other than magic. She’d found nothing.
God help them both if the equinox came and went, and he got no better.
Her thoughts in turmoil, she turned onto her street, stepping off the curb to pass a small pack of chattering coeds. But as she stepped back onto the sidewalk, she caught sight of a pair of males not ten yards ahead with ears a little too large on heads slightly too big for their bodies.
Her heart stopped, then took off like a flock of doves as her feet suddenly rooted to the sidewalk. The girls she’d just passed grunted and complained, now forced to walk around her. Ahead, one of the Traders turned to his companion, revealing his profile, making her breath catch in her throat. Because she recognized him. These weren’t just any Traders but the same two who’d caught her the second time she entered Vamp City, the pair who’d sold her to the slave auction. If they saw her, they’d recognize her in return, no doubt about it.
She reached into her pocket for her switchblade, then, pivoting on her heel, turned and slipped back around the corner, her gaze flying out in every direction, her heart thundering in her ears.
What were they doing a block from her apartment? Coincidence? Or had they somehow tracked her? Were they even now heading for her home?
And Zack was there alone.
Even if the Traders were looking for her, they might try to take him instead. Or hurt him if he got in their way.
She yanked out her cell phone and called Zack’s number. He could go to Mike’s. He’d be safe there; though what excuse they’d give Mike for such a cloak-and-dagger move, she had no idea. Maybe Zack would come up with something reasonably plausible and not too alarming.
But Zack’s phone rang and rang, flipping to voice mail. Dammit. If only she could call Mike, but the slip of paper with his number on it was still sitting on her kitchen counter. She’d never put his number in her phone.
Gripping her switchblade, Quinn began to run. Circling the block from the other direction, she entered her building from the back door instead of the front and hurried up the stairs, avoiding the elevator. When she reached her floor, she pulled her gun, then peered cautiously into the hallway. Empty.
Her pulse thundering in her ears, she eased her way down the hall, relieved to find her apartment door closed and, apparently, untouched. A good sign, unless Zack had opened the door and let them in.
Quickly unlocking the door, she slipped inside to find Zack snoring softly on the sofa. Locking the door behind her, she did a swift search of the apartment. Everything appeared normal if she didn’t count the way the beam of sunlight illuminated the gray cast of her brother’s skin.
Shoving her gun into her waistband, she shook Zack’s shoulder.
“Zack, wake up. We need to leave.” He made a sound that might have been a question, but his eyes failed to open. “Zack!” Still, he didn’t respond.
Panic bubbled up, shattering her desperate calm. He was too big for her to carry. And the Traders were too damned close.
Running to the kitchen, she snatched up the slip of paper with Mike’s phone number. “It’s Quinn, Mike,” she said when he answered.
“Quinn. What’s the matter?”
She took a deep breath, forcing herself to slow down. “Nothing. I just . . . Zack’s sick. I need to take him to a doctor, but I’m having trouble getting him awake. Can you help me get him down to the car?”
She’d expected a swift, “Of course.” Instead, her question was met with silence. She’d probably interrupted his writing, probably screwed up everything he was doing. Still . . .
“It’ll only take a couple of minutes, Mike.”
He sighed, his tone regretful. “Quinn, I can’t right now. Maybe in a couple of hours? I’m—”
Whatever else he said was drowned out by the crash of her front door. Whirling, she stared as the two Traders pushed their way into her apartment.
“Quinn?” Mike’s sharp voice rang in her ear.
“Don’t come, Mike.” She pulled her gun and backed toward the sofa and Zack. “I’m fine. Don’t come!” Mike might be a well-built male, but unless he possessed X-men-like talents, he wasn’t likely to be able to protect himself from supernatural creatures, let alone be of any help to her. He’d wind up in the slave auction at the mercy of bloodsucking vampires. Or dead. And that was the last thing she wanted.
If she was lucky, her power might decide to make an appearance. If not, she had other weapons, now. Tossing her phone onto the nearest chair, she aimed her gun at the closest Trader’s face.
He just grinned at her, sending chills down her spine despite the sunlight warming her back. “You don’t really think that toy is going to stop me, do you, girlie? You’ve got quite a reward on your head.”
As she’d both hoped and feared, her latent sorcerer’s power started to tingle in her blood, the weird, unnatural heat crawling beneath her skin. For all she knew, her eyes were glowing. One of these days, she’d like to be standing in front of a mirror when it happened so that she could see for herself.
The reality of firing her weapon at an assailant swept over her, at once exhilarating and terrifying. What if her bullet went wide, slamming through a wall and into another apartment? What if it didn’t, and she tore a hole through a living creature’s brain?
As the pair started slowly toward her, she pried her left hand away from the gun, holding it up, palm out and pointing toward her would-be captors. Taking a deep breath, she willed her power to come to her call, to push them back. But nothing happened, as usual, when she needed it.
“Come any closer, and I’ll shoot,” she warned.
A third person appeared in the doorway behind them. Mike.
“This isn’t your concern, Mike. Please leave.”
“Push them toward me, Quinn. Use your power and push them toward me. There’s too much sun.”
She froze at his words, her scalp going cold. Had Zack told him about her powers? No one knew. No one! Except Arturo. And the rest of the vampires.
Mike’s words slowly sank into her brain. There’s too much sun.
Too much sun.
Quinn swayed, the blood draining from her face as understanding crashed over her. Mike was a bloody freaking vampire. No, not Mike.
“Micah,” she breathed. Arturo had told her he had a friend . . . a vampire friend . . . named Micah who lived outside Vamp City. “You’re Micah.”
Her mouth hung open, her eyes going hard as flint as the implications bombarded her. Arturo had sent his buddy to watch her. He’d known right where she was the entire time. He’d never set her free at all!